Arts and Health and More Big Birds

BMJ Quality Forum at Ex-cel, London

Yesterday was a London day, long days those, with the return on the dear old-packed-to -the -gunwhales 19.07 from Euston.  Hence a late start this morning.

I was speaking at the BMJ Improving Quality conference at Excel in East London, it’s a bi-annual gathering of over 3,000 world leaders in health provision. It felt like a very crowded airport.The hurried photo is blurry and doesn’t show many of those 3000!

The session I was participating in was part of the nascent beginnings of what’s hoped may become an Arts Fringe for  this bi-annual do. What a great idea from the London Arts in Health Forum  and East London NHS Foundation Trust (ELFTArts). Many thanks to Damian Hebron and Stephen Sandford for inviting  me to take part. It was good to meet up also with Susan Potter representing Arts and Minds, the wonderful Cambridge based charity that has done great work getting people with depression and anxiety into expressing self through making art … a lovely presentation of that terrific work.

Our session was small – twenty or thirty people, but an engaged and impassioned group, who want to see the practice of arts (the humanities!) influencing, and indeed  as one clinician said, changing the very nature of healthcare.

I read Gillian Clarke’s poem, Miracle on St David’s Day, and spoke about the power of Shared Reading to give each of us a voice for our own experience. This morning that seems connected to the note I made the other day about need to write about how to choose a poem. Take Prothalamion here (which I’ve been reading on this site  on various days this last week or so) … I chose it because:

(i) I want to read poems I have not read before, and they need to be (mainly)  old ones so  they are out of copyright. I haven’t read it before

(ii) I want to challenge myself. I’m a bit scared of Spenser, hangover from undergraduate days, so good to take on a challenge.

But the main reason for choosing a poem isn’t listed above! The above points are technical, as if  I were saying ‘I like practicing the scale of B minor because it really stretches my hand’. Technical is important and fascinating in its own right, and the practice of technique is part of  being a really good reader. But it is not why I read.  The main reason for choosing a poem is, there is something there you want to experience.  How you know that is for another day.

But with Prothalamion, I don’t yet know if there is anything  here I want to experience. I’m reading in blind faith, in hope, and because Brian Nellist admires Spenser.  Where Nelllibobs goes can Jane be far behind?

But to go back to the poem. Where were we? O-oh, Leda and the Swan.

With that I saw two swans of goodly hue
Come softly swimming down along the Lee:
Two fairer birds I yet did never see;
The snow which doth the top of Pindus strow                        40
Did never whiter show,
Nor Jove himself, when he a swan would be
For love of Leda, whiter did appear;
Yet Leda was (they say) as white as he,
Yet not so white as these, nor nothing near;                           45
So purely white they were
That even the gentle stream, the which them bare
Seem’d foul to them, and bade his billows spare
To wet their silken feathers, lest they might
Soil their fair plumes with water not so fair,                         50
And mar their beauties bright
That shone as Heaven’s light
Against their bridal day, which was not long:
Sweet Thames! run softly, till I end my song.

Wonderful Wikipedia, even if it is not always right, is useful on these matters. Look here for info. Or don’t! In short, she was human, he was the god Zeus, and he took the form of a swan to seduce her. If there was no wikipedia and we had no reference book, no footnote, would it matter? No! We’d guess the meaning, using our powers of inference, or we’ ignore it. The point here is the gentle river-flow rhythm, and the incandescent whiteness of the two swans. I’ve only just noticed that as well as the last line of each stanza being a refrain ( ‘Sweet Thames! run softly, till I end my song.’), the second to last also  has a refrain-like quality and rhymes with the last line (‘Against their bridal day, which was not long’).

The nymphs are Ledas, the swans are Zeus in disguise: I’m suddenly realising that these are real people in the guise of greek myth characters; real Thames, real young women, real young men. Two swans – so was that ‘flock of lovely nymphs’ in stanza one,  just two women, too?  Whatever the numbers, there’s a wedding coming, and soon. Talking of numbers, I see the two swans are now a ‘silver brood.’  I’m taking these plurals to simply mean more than one!

Eftsoons the nymphs, which now had flowers their fill,
Ran all in haste, to see that silver brood,
As they came floating on the crystal flood.
Whom when they saw, they stood amazed still,
Their wondering eyes to fill.
Them seemed they never saw a sight so fair,
Of fowls so lovely, that they sure did deem
Them heavenly born, or to be that same pair
Which through the sky draw Venus’ silver team;
For sure they did not seem
To be begot of any earthly seed,
But rather angels, or of angels’ breed:
Yet were they bred of Somers-heat they say,
In sweetest season, when each flower and weed
The earth did fresh array,
So fresh they seemed as day,
Even as their bridal day, which was not long:
      Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.


The swans (young men) are so overwhelmingly lovely as to seem like gods or angels, yet they are down to earth, they come from ‘Somers-heat’  which made me laugh:  it’s a joke. It’s Somerset! But also summers heat. I’m realising, this poem is a sort of play, the poet is playing, dressing up real people in mythic clothes and with precious metals, gems and crystal but the scenery and the  river are real, the people are real: the two pictures are superimposed on the other. As if we had our photographs taken in Victorian swimming costumes at the real seaside with an ice cream van in the background.

I’m rushing through this, but time’s up for today.